Pocket Opera has seen many changes in its 33 years of existence, but this weekend I encountered three traditions that continue year after year. They always produce at least one Offenbach Opera Bouffe, they always produce at least one concert style opera by Handel, and they always present some of their performances at alternative venues. So –
Saturday, May 29 my good friend Sara and I drove to Berkeley where we saw Handel’s Rinaldo at the Julia Morgan’s Young People’s Performing Arts Center. We spent the night in Berkeley, and the next day drove on to Napa where we saw Offenbach’s La Vie Parisienne at the Napa Valley Opera House that afternoon. We had a delightful dinner with Sara’s daughter and her family, spent the night in Napa, and had a leisurely drive home Monday morning. I’ll write about Rinaldo in a separate review; today I want to talk about Sunday’s experience.
Jacques (née Jacob) Offenbach was born in 1819 in Köln, Germany. His father, a music teacher, composer, and cantor recognized Jacob’s early talent and got him admitted to the Paris Conservatoire at age 14. He left after only a year for financial and/or rebellious reasons. He soon became a cellist with the orchestra of the Opéra-Comique. Apparently he was quite a virtuoso, and played with such pianists as Anton Rubenstein and Franz Liszt.
After holding a variety of musical positions, he took over a small theater in 1855, renamed it the Bouffes Parisiens, and started his career of writing and producing almost a hundred Opera Bouffe.
Every year since 1981 Pocket Opera has produced and performed at least one of these. The list of performances includes eleven different full-length operas and two one-acts. Since my wife and I moved to the Bay area in 1993, I have seen nine out of these thirteen and enjoyed every one of them, including the most recent previous performance of La Vie Parisienne in 2004.
It is Saturday afternoon. Sara and have I left the car at the Travelodge Motel and are walking the two blocks to the Opera House, filled with anticipation. We still have plenty of time before the 2 pm curtain, so let me say a few words about the opera house.
The original Napa Opera House opened in 1880 with a performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore. For the next quarter century it thrived, hosting opera, plays, concerts, and vaudeville, as well as community events such as graduations, dances, and public meetings. It survived the 1906 earthquake with minimal damage, but in the next decade attendance and bookings dwindled, primarily due to competition from the new motion picture industry. In 1914 it closed its doors to the public and remained dark for almost a century. However, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973, and an extensive fund raising campaign to restore it was launched in 1985, culminating in a grand reopening in 2003. Every year since then Pocket Opera has presented one or more performances on its magnificent stage.
We arrive there well in advance, allowing time to admire the building from both outside and inside before being shown to our seats. The lights dim, the curtain goes up, and we are off.
And what a performance it was. If you know that you are going to see a light opera by Offenbach, you immediately know two things: it is tuneful, and it will have a happy ending. La Vie Parisienne is no exception. It is exceedingly tuneful and exceedingly funny. As you leave the theatre you can’t decide whether to laugh or to hum.
At this point in a review I would normally say something about the plot. The plot? What plot? La Vie Parisienne eschews a plot. It is a theme – a mood = a snapshot – a fantasy – a … – in short, it is the Life of Paris. 19th century Paris. Toujours gai Paree. A city of pleasure, fun, and abandon.
It is filled with people. Rich people. Titled people. Servants. Natives. Tourists. All bent on enjoying life to the utmost. They party. They dance. They sing (oh, do they sing). They drink (oh, do they drink). They play tricks on each other. They are in love. They are in lust. They have broken hearts. They have mended hearts. And, at the end of the opera, they are all happy.
Best of all, everything happens to Offenbach’s catchy, tuneful music.
Much of what I have written above could be written about any production of La Vie Parisienne. But Pocket Opera brings an extra treat. Even Artistic Director Donald Pippen gets swept up in the merriment. After the overture he, as usual, gets up from the piano and comes to the front of the stage to start telling us a bit about the story. Before he can get five words out a tenor rushes in, mistakes him for a train-station official, and demands to know when the train is due. Donald consults his watch and says, “in five minutes.” He tries again. Another tenor rushes in with the same question. Donald says, “In four and a half minutes,” shrugs his shoulders in defeat, and goes back to the piano.
Later, he plays the part of an Official Guide who does not object to a small bribe – as long as it isn’t too small! Still later, he is mistaken for a valet and ordered to put away some suitcases. He actually staggers across the stage carrying four of them! I hope for his sake that they were empty, and that he just did a very credible job of making them seem heavy.
And now, for the Good News. There are three more performances scheduled over the next two weeks. Saturday and Sunday, June 12 and 13 in San Francisco at the Legion of Honor, and Saturday June 19 at the Julia Morgan Theatre in Berkeley. If you have ever seen a Pocket Opera production of Offenbach, you know you don’t want to miss this one. If you have never seen a Pocket Opera production of Offenbach, it’s high time you did!
The Opera Nut
Florence Gould Theatre
Legion of Honor
100 34th Ave
Office: 469 Bryant Street
San Francisco, CA
Photos: Liza Gersham
This review by Philip G Hodge appeared in sanfranciscosplash.com on June 2, 2010.